Mubadarah: The Politics of the Possible

After successfully pressuring the government to grant civil rights to the children of Jordanian women married to foreigners, MP Mustafa Hamarneh’s Mubadarah legislative bloc is out to prove that parliament isn’t an ineffectual talking shop.

By Abdul-Wahab Kayyali and Dina al-Wakeel

Political heavyweight Mustafa Hamarneh and his Mubadarah bloc achieved big success last year when they managed to lobby the government to grant civil rights to the children of Jordanian women married to non-Jordanians—a thorny social issue that’s been left unresolved for decades. The win proved to many that Mubadarah won’t shy away from trying to find solutions to even the most sensitive and complex of problems facing Jordanian society.

Many Jordanians have a dim pictures of parliament at the moment, viewing it as little more than a political circus where MPs grandstand and hurl insults at one another. Hamarneh, who represents the first constituency in Madaba, has been working towards changing this perception, proving that during this term many parliamentarians have been using their elected position to devise practical policies that actually make a positive difference to the everyday lives of their constituents.

He is working hard to try to foster a more progressive and constructive type of politics through his leadership of Mubadarah, which currently has 16 members and roughly equates to 10 percent of all deputies. Despite its size, the bloc has been punching above its political weight in its attempt to tackle pressing social and economic issues.

Hamarneh has a storied resume; a PhD in history from Georgetown University, serving as director of University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies, establishing one of Jordan’s few substantial and progressive weeklies; Al-Sijill, and running for parliament three times (and losing twice). The man is no stranger to Jordanian public discourse. But his latest venture as the leader of Mubadarah is perhaps where he will leave his most lasting imprint.

What makes Mubadarah different to the other coalitions in Parliament?

Considering our goals and the systematic method we employ to achieve them, I would say that we are really the closest thing to an actual political body in parliament.

I think that neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor any other political group that has ever existed under the dome has ever had detailed programs for action. To the contrary, these groups always insisted on big pictures—the Arab Israeli conflict, the fight against imperialism—but we never saw a group that came forward and put on the table a detailed program for upgrading transportation, improving health services and education, or cutting waste in government. We also differ from other groups in our method of implementation. We know when to negotiate, when to apply pressure, and when to be lenient. We are less angry and more focused, and we never lose sight of our objectives.

When you talk about a partnership between Mubadarah and the government, what are each party’s roles?

There are no set roles. We are a partnership in vision. If they agree with our vision, we work with them. If they do not implement our shared vision, then we hold them accountable in parliament.

We met with the Prime Minister and told him we wanted joint committees, we want concrete suggestions for action that can be translated into policy, linked to a timetable that we can measure. He accepted.

It was clear that the ministries in Jordan did not know how to deal with a parliamentary bloc. I believe in progress and in reform from within, but there are entrenched positions that we were facing, and so we had to create crises. We did not have mass support on a national level, because there is insufficient push from below for democracy—though there is for regional enfranchisement like the Ma’an and Theeban movements. We felt that we needed to create a crisis. The last one was that we threatened to enter the last parliamentary session without this current PM, and that we would withhold confidence from his government. This was effective, because he came back to the negotiating table in two days.

Why did you think it was important to try to win civil rights for the children of Jordanian women married to foreign men?

For us, this is a question of principle. We didn’t do this for Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. We did this to make Jordan a better place for its citizens and all who live here. When you go into the field, you open yourself up to be torn apart. You deal with the accusations and move on. But to the people who criticize us, we are entitled to ask ‘What have you done?’

So how did you manage to strike a deal with the government on such a controversial issue?

Our biggest test indeed was the civil rights issue, and we passed it because there were no splits in the coalition. We faced very stiff resistance from our opponents in the public sphere, but none of us wavered. We simply ignored the counter-lobby.

We met with the PM and said that we were going to vote against the budget the next day unless they approved the initiative. And he promised us he would right then and there. We voted the budget through, and the government started their process of leaking information on the intended rights to the press. But what was leaked did not come close to what we were demanding. Many in government and outside “advised” us to accept the list, but we refused.

We didn’t get angry or interrupt the negotiation process. We went back to the government and they denied it was them. So in a very nice way we told them we didn’t accept the listed rights. We will not accept anything short of what we demanded.

What we’ve been able to achieve is significant. The significance is that it was a taboo only a year and a half ago. Just thinking of it was nearly akin to treason. And despite the attacks on me personally, we never retreated or lost sight of our objective.

Some criticized the legislation for going too far, while others attacked it for not going far enough. How do you respond to them?

When it comes to the alternative homeland debate, forget it. This is rubbish. And yes there were those who said that we didn’t accomplish enough with the initiative.

Surprisingly, that criticism came from the right, not from the left, and specifically from the bourgeois women of Amman for whom this issue of civil rights was one big photo opportunity.

The exception was the late Nahmeh Habashneh, the leading activist of this pro-civil rights issue. For us she was the shining star, a selfless, devoted and passionate human being. Just before her death I visited her in hospital. She said she was very content that we had come so far.

Do you think what you achieved received little recognition, and could that partly be a problem in your PR efforts?

Yes. Once it passed, the PM headed a press conference announcing the rights, and for the first time he said that this was achieved in cooperation with Mubadarah.

We do have an outreach problem, but also we discovered, sadly, that the pro-democracy elements in our society are quite weak.

Here’s the situation: When you have a very credible group of parliamentarians who are embracing a very progressive agenda on all fronts, you would expect that we would begin to meet political and social groups and individuals, who think the way we think. That they would start calling us and come to the Lower House or invite us to localities across the Kingdom. None of that happened. I think it’s a question of political culture. It was Mubadarah that reached out to small organized political groups, who were in the forefront in the fight for civil rights, but they never contacted us, except of course for Nahmeh Habashneh and her colleagues. We have also been unable to reach out due to the lack of resources. The enormity of the tasks we have in Amman requires cadres of researchers, training people on issues.

What else is Mubadarah seeking to change? 

The next thing we want to push for is the Political Party Law. We want to remove from the bill any impediments that prevent political mobilization. The government should give incentives to any political party. We also want to get rid of the 500 members requirement, which is an obstacle. We already submitted a complete new draft law to the judicial committee in parliament months ago.

As for the Press and Publications Law, we are for abolishing it entirely because, in our view, there’s absolutely no need for it. As for the Election Law, we’re still debating the issue amongst ourselves.

Considering the enormity of the task ahead, do you see these changes happening during this term?

I don’t know. It depends on how the democratic forces and individuals get their act together. In Mubadarah, we have a solid roadmap, we submitted a program and an executive plan linked to a timetable and the government is accountable to us.

Aren’t you worried the government could ignore your other proposals in the future?

It’s true. But look at how we dealt with the civil rights issue, we always brought the government back to the negotiating table. We have no other choice, you put a proposal on the table, if you don’t like what we propose, come back with a counter proposal. They were hoping we’d go away, but we are relentless in achieving our goals.

Are you happy with the way the Tax Law came out?

People voted with the rich on the Tax Law in the name of the middle class. You had members of parliament demanding that banks should pay zero taxes. So who pays taxes? Of course I’m not happy with the Tax Law and I think it needs to be revisited. I also think that in Jordan everybody must pay taxes, even a single dinar, no matter how much the income is, though it has to be progressive. This is linked to political participation. Ninety-two percent of us don’t pay taxes. Once you pay taxes then you would want to know where the money goes. We condemn the rentier state every day yet in our political behavior we ferment it. We also need to stop punishing successful enterprises and industries that employ Jordanians and bring in foreign currencies. They should be given enough incentives to expand.

The government also accepted our proposal to shift the subsidies on bread, where we expect to save around JD250 million. We also spoke about cutting waste in government, starting with withdrawing all cars for personal use from the public sector. But the government doesn’t see eye to eye with us regarding cutting costs.

What about electricity prices? The government agreed to reduce the hike to 7.5 percent, but because your fellow MPs objected, they kept it at 15 percent.

We submitted a very coherent suggestion for the government to keep the 15 percent. Let’s deal with it based on brackets and specify who should be subsidized. A computer will show your average consumption of electricity over the past five years.

We were the only group in parliament to submit a well-defined proposal that takes into account the issues of the different sectors and the whole process of subsidies, while other colleagues of ours unfortunately simply responded with anger. We sat with the Minister of Energy and submitted concrete suggestions to get Jordan out of this immediate crisis. The Prime Minister said he would get back to us but he never did. We strongly believe that some sectors need to begin the transfer to renewable energy, so the government should work on the green corridor.

Now, the budget debate is coming up so it’s very easy for members of parliament to put pressure on the government regarding the electricity bill and to get immediate response. I don’t think the government is off the hook.

Are there any plans to turn Mubadarah into a full-fledged political party?

We want to become a political party also outside parliament. We are working on this but for this you need massive resources to be able to go out in the provinces, establish offices, and pay salaries. We survive now on donations from the Mubadarah members themselves. Having no resources will hinder our progress. We had thought that in our country there’s demand for a progressive, democratic group of politicians in parliament.

Are you reaching out enough to members of the private sector, for example, to increase your resources? 

The private sector in our country is only interested in the maximum amount of profit whenever possible. That is why when we start talking about the Income Tax Law, they want exemptions.

The private sector in Jordan never built a case for themselves politically, they never had the political clout to match their economic clout. The negative aspect is that with their resources, they could have created so many wonderful oases in this country to support entrepreneurs and innovation.

So do you see real change happening and how hopeful are you for the future?

It must happen. When we spoke about positive engagement, people laughed at the concept. Now everybody is using positive engagement. When we spoke about partnership, they also mocked us. Their understanding of being in the opposition means being boisterous, angry, and loud. One of the biggest failures of the present government was that they never challenged parliamentary blocs to come up with counter suggestions and proposals.

What we did is what the opposition does in any modern parliament. We vote with you if you accept our program, otherwise we don’t. Change is happening and because government institutions are very weak, we can never give up on positive engagement because this is needed now more than ever. It is showing them that we are serious; when we go to all these meetings with officials we bring our own experts and consultants.

You cannot but be hopeful in public life. You cannot lose sight of your objective at all and you can’t be driven into side wars. In a nutshell, if one looked objectively at parliament and analyzed its members, one would never have forecasted the emergence of something like Mubadarah. But slowly, together, we built a solid political platform.